Sawing through Sexism – A Studio Visit in Mexico City

“Perhaps they expect me to wail and moan about ‘how much I suffer’ living with a man like Diego. But I don’t think that the banks of a river suffer by letting it flow…” (Frida Kahlo)

There I was. Finally! In the Villa Azul of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. After reading a collection of letters Frida wrote to her friends and to Diego, I imagined a blue house with an exotic garden and the creative touch of two artists. In reality, it was just like that, only that I had to share my experience with hundreds of other visitors…

Occasionally, I was able to  shield from the masses and concentrate on the blue, the green, the red – did the colors ease some of Frida’s pain? Pain that was omnipresent, that defined her life and love life, and became the driving force of her art. All her life Frida suffered from immense physical pain due to illnesses and accidents and moreover from the consequences of being a passionate and indulgent woman. She loved life, art, and love itself.

This text is not about Frida Kahlo. I bring her up because even though she was sharp-witted, she was also selfless and self-destructive when it came to her relationships with men, especially Diego. Bluntly speaking, she was under his spell, the same way as he was under hers. Despite her seeming submissiveness, it was her choice to stay, at least that’s what I understand from her writings. What about women in Mexico, and Latin America respectively, though? The majority doesn’t have the means to choose their fate freely as they are subjugated in a so-called machismo society. I’m aware that the problem is complex and moreover not unique to Latin America as patriarchy is still the dominating governmental system almost everywhere. What I’d like to tell is my own experience while traveling through Mexico, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, and to present some local insights.

Machismo is a word the dictionary defines as “a strong sense of masculine pride; an exaggerated masculinity.” I’m not an expert but fact is that machismo is one of many sociocultural problems that presents itself in early years of school. Machismo culture includes the set of behaviors and rules of conduct that are inculcated into boys as being strong, tough and independent, showing no emotion. So, where does this leave the Hispanic woman? The violence, harassment, and disrespect against women is a constant problem, which also CERRUCHA confirmed when I was visiting her studio in Mexico City. CERRUCHA (meaning “to be a saw”) is a Mexican artist who studied photography in Montreal. She soon returned to her hometown of Mexico City, where she is currently living and working. CERRUCHA uses photography, video, installation, and performance as her preferred means of expression which mainly focuses on socially engaged art that is based on the exploration of human behavior and the construction of social and personal identity. Her main aim is to develop critical thinking on timely issues such as gender, migration, otherness, and discrimination. Needless to say, our topics of conversation were plentiful.

“Mapping skin deep” (2014)  is a long-term project that entails testimonies from refugee and undocumented immigrants currently residing in Montreal and Mexico City. Their bodies show scars (added in post-production) tracing the route they took from their homeland to their current city of residence. Through their testimonies they share the wisdom they have acquired, revealing the courage, the lessons learnt, and their thoughts from the experience of being uprooted. “Scars are usually connotated negatively. My inspiration actually came from a song which said something beautiful: “Scars are the maps that trace your direction in life”. I like the idea of making the scar visible and to display that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a symbol of what happened, as they are a healed wound. Obviously, anyone is left with scars when forced to leave one’s home country.”
In our day and age, migration raises many issues anew. Borders and people’s minds shut down again and nationalism is on the forefront in many countries. Hence, CERRUCHA’s collection of refugees’ testimonies might help to feel empathetic with their situation and to realize that migration is not a choice but a struggle to survive.

The other project CERRUCHA presented was “In-visible”a project that started around 2010 in Montreal, which raises public awareness of issues concerning macho prejudices. “I collected sexist phrases that are typically said around here, like ‘You´re such a pussy’, ‘My husband lets me work’, and ‘This is not a game for girls’ and ‘tatooed’ them on the person. In Latin America there are many stereotypes regarding tattoos, linking people who wear them to gangs.” The juxtaposition of tattoos and sexist phrases displays how sexism is embedded in our psyche specifically through language and finally transfers into our subconscious. “How we talk is how we think and how we perceive the world. I want to challenge our behaviour when seeing these phrases tattooed on any person. I then made the photographs into a newspaper because I like the idea of creating original artworks that everyone can afford and are familiar with. I also printed 8000 copies and put them on Insurgentes (main road in the city) as a public project. People got interested in it when they realized that it wasn’t advertisement and they started a conversation.”

My own experience with machismo is that as a single woman you need a thick skin and/or thick clothes when walking along the streets. Men stare at you, whistle or make other disgusting noises with their mouths, make comments about your looks – and you don’t feel flattered, believe me. In lack of Spanish curse words I gradually developed a mean look – and yes, it could even get more fierce than usual – and moreover started to become ignorant and defensive. Which is exactly the opposite from how I want to behave as a foreigner. What is more, I noticed that men ‘accidentally’ bump into you or let their hand ‘accidentally’ stroke your ass when passing. The groping of women in public is therefore another major cause for alarm, especially on Mexico City’s metro (where also this happened), where women get harassed constantly. The government took action against it by installing ‘women only’ carriages, which is a necessary cause, of course, but not solving the problem.

“It’s a male dominated world.”, CERRUCHA tells me when asked how to react to the public harassment. “If I see a guy checking me out on the street, I just look him straight in the eye and stare a hole into him. Men are not used to being challenged by women so they are usually surprised. It’s about body language. You have to measure the circumstances, of course. Know when to get away!”

I guess not every woman has her confidence and strength, though. Thus, many women live in constant fear of being harassed and might not leave the house. They rather have to restrict themselves and their behaviour instead of the men getting punished. “The violence epidemic against women in Mexico is being compounded by the failings of the justice system, which passes sentence in only one percent of the small number of murder cases that ever make it to court.”

“The way men and women are brought up is imbedded in our culture”, CERRUCHA concludes. “The fact that you can see a sexy woman next to a corpse on a newspaper’s front page is not helping the cause.” And that was something that really shocked me. Totally unprepared I stumbled upon a newspaper cover that juxtaposed a half naked woman in sexy pose to a beheaded corpse (I spare you the picture). The degradation of the body to a mere sex object is humiliating to say the least, moreover these newspaper covers draw the connection between women and violence. In my opinion this just adds to the trivialization of the female body as it is turned into a cheap thrill and public property – a perspective that transfers from the streets to the homes to the next generations.

In search for explanations I found one statement by bell hooks more or less comprehensible: “At church they had learned that God created man to rule the world and everything in it and that it was the work of women to help men perform these tasks, to obey, and to always assume a subordinate role in relation to a powerful man. They were taught that God was male.” (bell hooks, ‘Understanding Patriarchy’) In my humble opinion, religious upbringing thus seems to add to male’s superiorority (at least in Catholic countries) and might pose yet another probable cause for their sexist behaviour as well as its justification.  To conclude, offering (sex) education and raising public awareness is crucial and this is where art finally gets into the picture again. Like many public art projects, CERRUCHA’s works challenge us to saw through fixed ideals and ancient mindsets and empower to make space for fresh ones.  

And what about Frida? She loved Diego more than her own life and is considered an icon of feminism nonetheless. In conclusio, no matter how dependent or independent a woman is from a man or from society, one is not prevented from the pain the heart might cause. If that’s any consolation… 

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